From the look of things, you’d be correct in thinking that a revolution in food production was underway. Calls for local, sustainable, slow, humane, organic, non-genetically modified, fair-wage, “real” food are not only ubiquitous, they’ve inspired a farm-to-table movement that seeks to end industrialized agriculture, empower small farmers, and replace Walmart with farmers markets. Hundreds if not thousands of books, articles, foundations, academic conferences, and documentaries have joined the cause, rallying around the idea that industrial agriculture should—and can—and will be stopped.
These efforts have spawned a unique public discourse, one ubiquitously re-iterating the message that industrial agriculture wreaks ecological havoc, endangers human health, and exploits workers in order to produce food that’s overly processed, overly cheap, and overly globalized. Given the intensity of this culinary zeitgeist (not to mention the fact it gets very little critical inquiry from an adoring media), there’s every reason to think that food-reform-minded Americans, voting with their forks, are finally changing how Americans eat.
It is always difficult to get beyond the rhetoric and quantify such trends, but one metric seems safe to assume: If the movement were working, factory farms would be in decline. But, as a report just released by Food and Water Watch reveals, the exact opposite is happening. While muckrakers have been exposing every hint of corruption in corporate agriculture, and while reformers have been busy creating programs to combat industrial agriculture with localized, “real food” alternatives, factory farms have been proliferating like superweeds in a field of Monsanto corn.
Last February the Waste and Resources Action Program—a British anti-waste organization—reported that one-third of the food produced globally is never eaten. That’s roughly two billion metric tons of edible waste that ends up in landfills, where it emits about seven percent of the world’s total greenhouse gas emissions. Environmentalists have taken notice and the problem—food waste—is now a serious environmental concern. “If more and more people recognize their own food waste,” writes Jonathan Bloom, author of American Wasteland, “we can take a bite out of this problem.”
As Bloom suggests, reformers have largely placed responsibility for reducing food waste in the hands of consumers. More often than not we are rightfully admonished to eat the whole metaphorical hog as an act of ecological redemption.
“Leftovers can be turned into completely different meals,” writes one reader of Bloom’s blog, Wasted Food. “To better utilize food,” writes another, “use the whole animal” (the reader suggests bone broth). “STIR-FRY,” says a third, who claims to “live in a forest.” Throw in the prevailing advocacy for eating “ugly fruit” and the intrepid dumpster divers and you have a landscape of waste warriors crusading to achieve meaningful reform by piling our plates with food items we’d normally toss (or have already tossed).
The most conspicuous example of this eat-the-leftovers approach to reducing food waste recently came from celebrity chef Dan Barber. For a stretch of time in March, Barber cleared out his famous Blue Hill restaurant and replaced it with a “pop-up” creation—called WastED—that served food scraps salvaged from commercial kitchens. For $85 a meal, patrons could sample an array of dishes cooked with recycled culinary debris, including pickle butts, carrot tops, offal, and skate-wing cartilage. Exchanging spare ribs for kale ribs, diners were able to experience a culinary novelty while doing a good deed for the environment. It was the American way of reform epitomized: Fix the problem by buying something that makes you happy.
Read more here.
“We had no idea that we were going to see what we saw.” These are never words you want to hear about a slaughterhouse. But they’re exactly what Adam Wilson, the director of investigations at Last Chance for Animals, a Los Angeles-based animal advocacy group, said about his organization’s recent investigation of Pel-Freez, the nation’s largest rabbit processing plant, located in Rogers, Arkansas.
The details, obtained by an undercover agent who worked at Pel-Freez as a “blood catcher” for six weeks last fall, are, even by abattoir standards, morbid. Slaughterhouse workers were filmed improperly stunning rabbits by whacking them in the face with the dull side of a knife (electrical stunning is the norm); they broke the legs of conscious rabbits to better fit them onto J-hooks designed for poultry; they decapitated fully conscious rabbits; and they ignored grievous rabbit injuries. Wilson noted how, in one instance, a worker encountered an abscessed wound on a rabbit so filled with pus that he wretched.
When the media first started covering the California drought it did so from the perspective of the specific foods we eat. Given that 80 percent of the state’s water is used for agriculture, this would seem to make sense. Mother Jones crusaded against the water-hogging impact of nuts, especially almonds. Michael Pollan, seizing on an illuminating Los Angeles Times infographic, took to Twitter and declared California lentils verboten. I highlighted the disproportionate share of the state’s water consumed by beef and dairy, specifically the alfalfa crop that helps sustain these industries.
The obvious benefit of this approach is that it empowers consumers. As a consumer, I feel good about not eating beef and a little guilty about the almond milk in my fridge. I feel compelled to purchase lentils from France but comforted by the fact that beer has a relatively low water footprint. I agree that much of the produce grown in the Central and Imperial Valleys should be grown in the Midwest, but until that happens (don’t hold your breath), I’m motivated to make concrete choices that address California’s water crisis. Hard data about specific foods helps me do this.
An aggressive strain of avian flu—the largest to appear in the United States in over 30 years—has forced Midwestern chicken and turkey producers to cull over 15.1 million birds since early March. Most of these losses have occurred since mid-April. The virus, which doesn’t appear to pose an immediate threat to humans, has spread to 10 states. Iowa and Minnesota have been hit the hardest.
The economic impact of the virus—called H5N2—has been severe. Mexico and China have halted the importation of U.S. birds and eggs. Hormel Food Corps, the nation’s second largest supplier of turkey meat, highlights “significant challenges” as it forecasts lower earnings. Contract growers, who have little recourse under such circumstances, are stuck with mortgaged farms and no income. At a meeting in Minnesota some of these growers broke down in tears. “Are we done?,” Iowa’s Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey asked about the flu. The answer, it seems, is no. Not even close.
How should consumers interpret this situation? The conventional critique of such epidemics is that they result from industrial over-crowding—cramming too many birds into a tight space. GRAIN, a non-profit organization dedicated to sustainable agriculture, articulated this position during a 2006 H1N2 virus outbreak. The virus, it contended, was “essentially a problem of industrial poultry practices.” The proper response, it implied, was obvious: a transition to non-industrial, pasture-based management. Commenting on the current outbreak, Wayne Pacelle, CEO of the Humane Society of the United States, agreed with this perspective, writing that “the root cause” of the bird flu is “inhumane, overcrowded conditions in the poultry industry.
A direct, causal relationship between avian flu and industrial conditions would be fantastic news. Most notably, it would allow us to begin systematically fighting the disease through a surefire method: providing chickens and turkeys more space to roam. Unfortunately, the etiology of avian flu doesn’t support this connection. The problem of avian flu, it turns out, transcends farm size and stocking density and cuts right to the core of animal domestication per se.
Read more here.
As far as media attention goes, April 11, 2014, was a banner day for Greg Finch. As the lone supplier of antibiotic-free, pastured Vermont pork to the highly acclaimed 5-Knives, a specialized supplier of local pork, Finch was offered what amounted to subsidized advertising space in the Burlington Free Press. The paper’s staff reporter, Sally Pollak—who told me she met Finch at a coffeehouse—served as stenographer for Finch, who delivered his talking points:
“To [raise pigs] without the modern crutches of medicine, it’s management that makes you successful…. Doing things the right way all the time…. I take the best information I can find and adapt it to what I do.”
“This time around, with local foods, the farmer is a big part of the market, which is the exciting part of it…. It’s more of a collaboration. It’s much better for the farmer, and more vibrant for the farm.”
“I’m very, very careful about bio-security.”
Experienced observers will recognize these remarks as boilerplate rhetoric, the kind that characterizes much of today’s food writing. A year later, though, Finch finds himself mired in media muck rather than admiration.
The Vermont Agency of Agriculture recently revealed that much of Finch’s “Vermont” pork came from Pennsylvania pigs. Twice a month Finch headed south to an auction house in New Holland, purchased 50 or so conventionally raised pigs, and hauled them back to the Green Mountain State, where he had them processed into “local” bellies, hams, and other choice cuts.
It was a profitable move while it lasted. Read more.
The following review essay appeared in the Spring 2015 edition of The Virginia Quarterly Review. A link to the complete article is below. Please leave comments there.
The worst thing about sausage is that it has to be made. We know this because a generation of journalists has infiltrated North America’s feedlots and slaughterhouses to expose the apparatus that churns out mass quantities of commodity meat. American agribusiness—wreaking havoc on animals, laborers, consumers, and planet Earth—is generally understood to be irredeemable. Today, enlightened consumers wouldn’t be caught dead near a Big Mac. For what it’s worth, that’s progress.
The reformist lexicon that fuels the outrage resonates with the political right, left, and everyone in between. A libertarian Virginia farmer fumes over the “industrial agriculture complex.” An Oxford-educated activist vents that “globalized corporate agriculture” has left us “stuffed and starved.” A poet-farmer whose horse-drawn plow breaks up Kentucky soil laments how “the ideal industrial food consumer would be strapped to a table with a tube running from the food factory directly into his or her stomach.” Yikes (and yuck).
Such visceral disgust makes one wonder: Just who are these people monopolizing the world’s food supply? Indeed, the strangest thing about antiagribusiness angst is that it rages full tilt without a real understanding of the machinations that empower the corporate leviathan. We’re routinely hit with dramatic visuals: the slaughterhouses, endless corn and soy fields, obesity charts, deforestation photos, undercover animal-abuse films, and battery-caged birds. But we ignore the sterile office space where the sausage-making playbook is written
Two books—Ted Genoways’s The Chain: Farm, Factory, and the Fate of Our Food and Christopher Leonard’s The Meat Racket: The Secret Takeover of America’s Food Business—begin to fill this gap. Genoways, a contributing writer at Mother Jones (and former editor of this publication), and Leonard, an investigative reporter, offer respective portrayals of Hormel and Tyson Foods that show how the brutality of the abattoir reflects the sangfroid of the boardroom, where cuts of a more metaphorical sort enhance the wealth of salaried executives at the expense of disposable wage workers.
My son, 13, has started a small business selling some of the photos he’s taken. He decided to do this after having unexpected success selling prints at an Austin arts fair. Feel free to check out his website and share it with others who might be interested. Most importantly, enjoy.
Gene Baur, a friend and fellow marathoner, is what you might call the activist’s activist. He’s articulate, charismatic, and a rare blend of incredibly friendly but serious at the same time.
The range of his activism runs the gamut. He travels relentlessly to give talks about his work at Farm Sanctuary and the benefits of living a compassionate “animal-friendly life” (in fact, when I first met Gene he was rambling through town in a VW Bus on a cross-country tour promoting veganism); he lives out his ideals by rescuing and raising farm animals at the nation’s leading farm sanctuary that he founded in the late 1980s; and, to top it off, he is a best-selling and elegant writer—author most recently of the Living the Farm Sanctuary Life, which is just out in paperback.
Gene’s book is a rare combination of attributes. It’s a strong plea for a plant-based diet, a guide to animal-friendly consumer and environmental ethics, an overview of farm-animal sentience, and a range of recipes that help us put our values on the plate in an especially delicious way. My favorite recipe section is “handheld meals”—and the Just Mayo chickpea salad sandwich (p. 164) has become a go to (in fact, it’ll be my lunch today).
What comes through powerfully in this book is the inspiring notion that—and I admit to doing battle with this idea—individual choice matters when it comes to creating a better world for animals. “I believe that everyone can make a significant change in their lives when they’re ready to make that change,” Baur writes. Don’t let the simplicity of the statement fool you. After reading this book, even the most worn skeptic will be softened to the possibility.
If all this sounds too good to be true, you can check Gene out for yourself. This evening he’ll be on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. Tune in.
And tune in.